A Tremendous Mahler 3 from Dudamel and the LA Phil

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano), Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel. Barbican Hall, London, 24.3.2016. (JPr)

Mahler, Symphony No.3 in D minor

Two of Mahler symphonies in three days has left those who attended them both with the almost unanswerable question as to which was the best. Certainly Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic gave a memorable account of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony (review) which every seasoned Mahlerian I have spoken with agrees was one of the best they can recall … and now there was Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic performing Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Of the dozens of leading conductors who regularly visit London, none generates quite the air of expectancy which accompanies the arrival of Gustavo Dudamel. A sceptic might attribute that in part to the cumulative effect of publicity and the worthy cause that is Venezuela’s El Sistema which nurtured him. Now in his seventh season as Music and Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic he brought one of the most glamorous of international ensembles back (at the end of a US and European tour) to the Barbican for the first time since 2013. Now the doubts of one of the stubbornest sceptics – me! – about ‘The Dude’ were swept away by this performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony.

The musical responsiveness of the orchestra was remarkable but I must add that the Royal Philharmonic under Petrenko two days before were equally good. Dudamel and his Angelenos seem to have Mahler’s music in their bones. The conductor demanded technical precision from his musicians but never at the expense of ardour. Not only was there beauty of tone but also literal accuracy. For Dudamel the attacks and releases were sharply honed, no doubt in response to his temperament and artistic preferences. Mahler’s typically unique air of wild abandon and garish tone palette were always glowingly apparent. The opening movement was taken at what seemed to be a fairly swift tempo and there was an overpowering sense of urgency, grippingly vacillating between Mahler’s funereal moodiness and the bright-toned, clashing marching band tunes which sounded to my ears as very ‘American’ on this occasion. The horns which were warm in tone throughout, played magnificently in these very contradictory pages. Like some other conductors, Dudamel allowed quite a pause after the long and strenuous opening movement – for which there is some precedent in one of Mahler’s own performances – but it did nothing to help sustain mood or concentrate the minds of an audience which was not as attentive as that earlier in the week at the Royal Albert Hall.

For me the night-bird’s haunting screeches were a little too tame when the hinaufziehen figure for the oboe called out but Tamara Mumford reverently intoned Nietzsche’s anguished poetry in the fourth movement and, with suitably more vitality, the Wunderhorn excepts in the fifth. In that latter brief but compelling episode, the Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus and the always wonderful Tiffin Boys’ Choir singing with their usual angelic charm joined her in one of Mahler’s most endearing excursions into unpretentious pseudo-naiveté. The deeply nostalgic posthorn solo during the third movement’s Scherzando – another glorious interlude in Mahler’s Third – was played from the highest reaches of the Barbican Hall with utmost nostalgic poignancy and I cannot remember these passages ever bettered and this contributed mightily to the triumphant success of this performance.

Dudamel’s 105-minute performance was generally evenly paced – its schizophrenic nature notwithstanding – but became more expansive during the heartbreaking finale. I am in danger of repeating myself too much on this topic but conductors and many musicologists ignore Wagner’s influence on Mahler at their peril, yet most want to. As the Adagio finale unfolded towards its Schopenhauerian conclusion – where both the world and its earthly love is renounced – I marvelled once more at the Wagnerian sounds emanating from the strings; the lower ones recalling Parsifal and the upper ones Lohengrin. Dudamel is believed to be Bayreuth-bound in coming years and Mahler had been to Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1883 and commented ‘I can hardly describe my present state to you. When I came out of the Festspielhaus, completely spellbound, I understood that the greatest and most painful revelation had just been made to me, and that I would carry it unspoiled for the rest of my life’. The concluding D major hymn is made all the more poignant if you recall the words of the 1930’s song ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ from composer Sammy Fain who clearly lifted the tune’s first four lines from this movement. The tension cranked up by all that had gone before was resolved with tremendous orchestral power unleashed at the third climax. Mahler brings us his vision of heaven and divine love in some heartrendingly beautiful passages that culminate in the deeply affecting coda whose impact here was indescribable.

Although the best came last, what Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic achieved in this performance was extraordinary. Cliché free and allied to imposing – and suitably raw – musical power and with the modern approach I appreciate which eschews over-sentimentalising for something more structural and psychological. The opening horn calls of the long ‘Summer marches in’ (Pan Awakes) opening movement – though Mahler later declared ‘Perish all programmes!’ – led to passages that suitably established the ambience of Dionysian turmoil. The ‘What the flowers of the meadow tell me’ second movement had a graceful charm all of its own, creating a great sense of reverie for the audience. There was a tremendous show of virtuosity by all the sections of the orchestra and some especially fine solo contributions throughout the symphony by the concertmaster, Martin Chalifour.

Jim Pritchard

For more about classical events at the Barbican visit http://www.barbican.org.uk/music/classical.asp.


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